The present work studied the effect of chronic bombesin on the mouse pancreas and analyzed whether or not this effect was direct. Bombesin administered s.c. 3 times daily for 4 days at various concentrations (0.1, 1, 10, 20 micrograms/kg b. wt.) induced pancreatic growth in a dose-dependent manner. This growth was characterized by an increase in pancreatic weight, its protein and RNA contents suggesting cellular hypertrophy. Pancreatic enzyme content was also increased, especially for amylase (14-fold) and at a lesser degree for chymotrypsin and lipase (2.5-fold). The DNA content of the gland increased significantly after a 1 microgram/kg bombesin treatment suggesting hyperplasia. [3H]thymidine incorporation into DNA increased slightly from 24 h after the first bombesin injection and more obviously at 72 and 96 h indicating DNA synthesis. To determine the direct effect of bombesin on pancreatic acinar cell growth cells were cultured as monolayers on collagen gels in media lacking added hormones and containing 2.5% FBS with or without bombesin (1 microM-1 nM) or caerulein (10 nM). [3H]thymidine incorporation into DNA was increased by caerulein (10 nM) and bombesin (100 nM and 1 microM). Therefore, it is concluded that bombesin is a pancreaticotrophic peptide in mice. Moreover, it is suggested that this effect occurs directly on pancreatic cells.